Remembering Sandy Hook

Remembering Sand Hook

We all remember those dark days of December, 2012 when innocent lives were lost due to an unthinkable act of violence. The 3-year anniversary of this tragedy has just passed, and our hearts go out to those who were intimately affected. Their lives have been forever changed.

Learning from the Sandy Hook tragedy

In this post, I’m going to focus on what I believe is the single most important take-away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy:  There is an established and effective practice that can help prevent future tragedies. The practice of violence threat assessment allows us to identify and attend to the warning signs before we get to the point of another school shooting. It is precisely the model used by the FBI and Secret Service to evaluate threats and warning signs.

In the days, weeks and months following a targeted act of violence, we start to peel back the layers and acknowledge the many signs and missed opportunities. When we notice, assess, and intervene in behaviors that seem “off” or match those we know are indicators of possible mental illness, lack of coping skills, violent ideology, suicide or violence, we are taking action to prevent violence from occurring.

By attending to the warning signs, communicating with others, gathering information that helps us form a complete picture, and implementing plans for both safety and intervention, we are making great strides toward preventing violence. To learn more about how violence threat assessment works, simply click here.

Parents: How to handle safety concerns about someone in your child’s school

Parents: How to handle safety concerns in your child's school

Parents: do you know how to handle safety concerns about someone in your child’s school? Perhaps, it’s a classmate or one of your child’s friends. Maybe it’s someone your child has mentioned as a bully or a disruptive student in the school. What if your child expresses concerns about an adult who works or volunteers at the school?

Rest assured: there are some things you can do. Here are some tips that other parents have found to be helpful as they’ve navigated these troubled waters.

How to handle safety concerns about someone in your child’s school

  1. Trust your intuition. If you believe someone’s words or behavior warrant further investigation and possible action, report those concerns to an administrator at once. Intuition is not some mystical sense. It is our subconscious picking up peripheral clues while we are focused on other things.
  2. If you are concerned that violence could be imminent, contact law enforcement immediately. If it does not appear that violence is imminent but you have concerns about someone being on a pathway to violence, report your concerns to the school principal. You may have to move up the chain of command until someone takes action, which could require taking your concerns to the school resource officer, director of student services or superintendent. Understand, though, that much of what needs to be done by school staff to address the issue is behind-the-scenses, and cannot be shared with you.
  3. Document dates and content of any reports you make, and any responses or conversations you have with school personnel regarding your concerns.
  4. Show an interest in wanting to be part of the solution. Let the school staff with whom you speak know that you are not trying to create upheaval or place blame; you simply want to do all you can to be certain the school is safe for students, staff and families.
  5. Do your research. Read about the warning signs of violence from a reputable source such as this list, created through a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice. If you find it challenging to get school staff to understand the seriousness of your concerns or you start to doubt your own perceptions, pick up the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker for reinforcement. This book will help you decipher and understand your sense that something isn’t right, giving you the strength you need to press on.
  6. Don’t give up!  Stay with it until you are confident that your concerns are being adequately addressed. You will be rewarded with a sense of relief and your community will be safer because of your tenacity.


Preventing School Vandalism

Preventing School Vandalism

Did you know that the number one predictor of school vandalism is a lack of bonding and attachment to school and school staff? When students feel connected to their school community, they are far less likely to deface or destroy the physical space around them.

Preventing School Vandalism

Here are some creative ways to build connections and a sense of ownership in your school:

  • Create a “vandalism account.” To provide an incentive to students, schools can designate a specific dollar amount that would ordinarily be used for vandalism-related repairs. If the building remains clear of damage and graffiti, the funds can be used at the end of semester for something students desire such as a pizza party, field trip or dance (Idea courtesy of Center for Problem Oriented Policy, 2015).
  • Have all classrooms adopt a location in the school and maintain it regularly. For details and a free downloadable “Adopt a School Location” poster, visit Intervention Central.
  • Allow students to create artwork, murals and other welcoming spaces in the school to facilitate ownership and bonding.

Of course, a good deal of vandalism occurs after school hours, so you’ll want to be sure you also have adequate lighting, cameras, signage and controlled entry during the off-hours. Putting all of these practices in place will go a long way toward preventing school vandalism and promoting a more positive learning environment.

Preventing Mass Shootings

Last week brought word of yet another mass shooting, and once again we find ourselves asking whether there were indicators that might have allowed us to prevent it. From my vantage point, I can’t be sure of whether there were or weren’t, as I don’t know the full story. But, I do know that we need to continue to educate schools, workplaces and community organizations about the practice of threat assessment. It remains the best tool we have to prevent mass shootings.

These attacks are not spontaneous; they are meticulously planned. The time it takes to plan and move closer to an attack gives us a window where we can intervene, assist and redirect a person of concern.

Preventing Mass Shootings

It’s important to fully understand what threat assessment is, and what it isn’t. It is about preventing an attack. It is not about predicting it, which is extraordinarily difficult even for trained mental health professionals.

We begin this practice by educating everyone in our organization about the signs and signals to report. We ensure that each staff member, student and parent knows how and where to report concerns and that those concerns will be taken seriously and followed up by action. We must put together and train a team of building administrators, school resource officers and student services professionals to do the work of investigating, assessing and managing potential threats. This is not a one-time action; it is a process that may go on for years.

For a more in-depth explanation, read this series of articles on threat assessment. For a thoughtful, engaging look at the current state of threat assessment, read this article by Mark Follman published in the November/December 2015 issue of Mother Jones.

If you do not currently have a threat assessment process and team in place, consider that you may be exposing your district, campus or workplace to liability. Threat assessment is now seen as the emerging standard and is required for public colleges in three states, and in K-12 schools, in one state. Developing and training threat assessment teams is what I do, and I will work with you for an extended period of time to make sure your team has a full grasp of the concepts and procedures, and can confidently move forward on its own.

If you’re ready to get started on building your threat assessment team, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to answer your questions.

It’s Time for a Plan

School Safety Plan

It’s time for a plana safety plan. Do you have one in place? Does it need to be tested, reviewed and updated?

Safety plans should be reviewed annually and updated every three years, at a minimum. Drills and tabletop exercises can point to areas that may need to be tweaked. What sounds good on paper doesn’t always play out that way in reality. Better to find out now that your protocols need adjusting, than during an actual emergency.

If you have decided that it’s time for an updated school safety plan:

There are many resources to help you. Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) provides a wealth of resources to get you started. This past summer, I attended the REMS training of trainers along with several facilitators from the Wisconsin Safe & Healthy Schools Center. Any of us can work with you to help you test and improve your safety plan.

September is National Preparedness Month and school is now underway. What better time to make your school safety plan the best it can be?

Two Types of Violence in Schools

Two types of violence in schools

There are two types of violence in schools: impulsive and targeted. But, only one of them typically ends up on the evening news.

Targeted violence is premeditated and planned over a period of time. Because of the planning and preparation that precede it, this type of violence is considered to be predatory in nature. This is the one that stops us in our tracks when we see it on the news.

Impulsive violence is reactive and may seem to come out of nowhere, or it can be a nearly predictable result of ongoing conflict.

Differences between the two types of violence:

A pioneering study found distinct differences between impulsive and predatory violence, when that violence results in death. Here are some of the findings that can help increase our own awareness:

  • Compared to impulsive murderers, predatory/premeditated murderers are nearly twice as likely to have a history of mood disorders or psychotic disorders — 61 percent versus 34 percent.
  • Compared to predatory/premeditated murderers, impulsive murderers are more likely to be developmentally disabled and have cognitive and intellectual impairments — 59 percent versus 36 percent.
  • Over 90% of the impulsive murderers in this study had a history of alcohol or drug abuse and/or were intoxicated at the time of the crime — 93 percent versus 76 percent of those whose crimes were premeditated.

In schools, we need to be alert for both types of violence. We must pay attention to individuals and specific actions. Only then can we dig deep enough to assess a person’s mindset, coping skills, stressors, and intent to harm others so we can contain and manage the situation before violence takes place. To learn more about this process, see this.

For more on preventing targeted school violence, click here.

Youth Risk Prevention Specialists is Relocating!

Youth Risk Prevention Specialists Albuquerque

Youth Risk Prevention Specialists is relocating to Albuquerque, NM. I lived and worked in New Mexico a number of years ago and look forward to returning. Yet, it will not be easy to leave the amazing friends and colleagues who have enriched my life in Wisconsin.

Please know that I will continue working with schools nationwide to help them become safer havens for students, staff and parents.

For those of you in Wisconsin, I will be here until the end of October, so if you have been considering a staff safety trainingviolence threat assessment training, parent presentation or other Youth Risk Prevention Specialists service, now is the time! Of course, I would be happy to work with you in the future as well, but you can save on travel expenses by scheduling something in the next two months.

It has been a true pleasure to work with all of you and I look forward to our continued professional relationship.


Domestic Violence Goes to School

Domestic violence goes to school

Have you considered the impact of domestic violence on your school?

While school violence is actually quite rare, we need to give some thought to all of the hazards that could affect our schools.

A school is a workplace, and domestic violence finds its way into the workplace on a regular basis. You may have an employee who is a victim of domestic violence and you might not know it. An especially high-risk time for a domestic abuse victim and those around him or her is before, during, and after either a restraining order has been issued or a relationship break-up has occurred. When it comes to mass shootings, domestic violence makes up the most common scenario in our country today.

Even if the person has moved out of the home to a safe-house or other location, the abuser knows that he or she will likely continue to report to work.

Minimizing the impact of domestic violence on your school

Encourage your staff members to use your Employee Assistance Program and seek out other sources of support. Be alert to signs of stress, agitation, worry, increased absences and deterioration of work performance. While an employee may not want to disclose much information and is likely to underestimate or downplay the seriousness of the situation, it’s important to let him/her know of your concern and availability.

If you have reason to believe the person is in danger, you will need to discuss your concerns with the employee and your threat assessment team or law enforcement. You must act to protect not only the victim of domestic violence, but others in your workplace as well.

If you have a situation that concerns you and you’d like to talk it through, consider a 1-to-1 Consultation or a Threat Assessment Consultation to do just that.

Top 5 Reasons for Background Checks in Schools

background checks in schools

According to the Federal Government Accounting Office background checks are not required of school volunteers in 32 states; 12 states do not require background checks for contractors who have unsupervised contact with children, and 5 states have exemptions for some employee categories such as bus drivers and coaches.

Failure to conduct background checks on any adult who spends time in your building leaves you open to serious liability.

According to Patrick V. Fiel Sr., Campus Safety, there are 4 things that a background check can uncover:

  1. Cover-ups and lies on applications or resumes
  2. Employment eligibility/legal residency
  3. Sexual offender history
  4. Theft or other financial issues, especially important for individuals working with cash or fundraising
  5. I would like to add a 5th: It’s  important to be aware of other types of past criminal involvement such as fraud, disorderly conduct, assault, battery, and drug charges, even if they were dismissed.  

The knowledge gained by checking will give you the information you need to make much safer decisions.

Back to School Safety Made Simple

back to school safety, school safety drills, tabletop exercises

Back to school safety: It feels like there are a million things to attend to and safety drills are probably not at the top of your list. Should they be?

Well….the beginning of the year is a time when school staff members often talk with students and parents about expectations, rules and policies. Everyone is fresh and ready to learn. Perhaps this is a good time to talk about drills.

Back to school safety. What next?

A good place to start is by walking through a variety of emergencies during tabletop exercises with key staff and emergency responders. Perhaps you did this over the summer. Next, you will want to conduct full-school drills. The type of drills should be rotated and include fire, chemical spill, evacuation, reverse evacuation, lockdown and any other type of drill pertinent to your specific location (flood, tornado, etc.).

The more you practice, the calmer and less fearful everyone will be. We can’t always control what happens, but we can control how we respond. Practicing drills conditions us to behave in a specific way even when our physiology and cognitive capacity are compromised.

In an emergency, stress causes several things to happen to us physiologically. Our fine motor skills deteriorate, followed by our complex motor skills and cognitive processing ability. We lose some of our problem-solving skills, and if our heart rate gets high enough, we may begin to behave irrationally.

Practicing drills exactly as we want to behave in a true emergency will help tremendously. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? A conditioned response is what we strive for in a fire drill. The alarm sounds and we drop what we’re doing and evacuate. We want to do the same for other emergencies, while still allowing for some decision-making on the part of staff if a situation deviates from what is expected. Your back to school safety efforts will go a long way toward keeping everyone safer.